Happiness is... helping others
Meet the UAE residents who are going out of their way to spread joy - and inspiring countless others along the way
What is happiness, really? That feeling you have when you're with close family or, even, when you leave them behind to go travelling for the first time? Is it the bliss you feel when you're lazing around, doing nothing, or is it the satisfaction derived from a hard day's work? The point is, happiness is subjective. But it is also universal, and - irrespective of your religion, nationality, age or gender - there are some acts that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face, and leave you with that all-too-welcome boost of serotonin (the happy hormone, of course!) that comes with the simple act of helping those around.
This week, we bring you closer to those UAE residents who are working tirelessly in this regard. From helping the disabled or less fortunate to performing random acts of kindness, they're spreading cheer all around - and are here to talk about how you can too.
Lina Nahhas from The Sameness Project
It's hard not to have heard of The Sameness Project, if you're living in the UAE. Founded by Palestinian-Canadian Lina Nahhas in 2011, The Sameness Project is utterly unique in the sense that it does not consider itself a charity.
Instead, it uses social campaigns and community events to encourage residents to overcome social and cultural barriers by relating to people from all walks of life, and empathising with them.
"I want to create a 'sameness' moment with other human beings," says Lina, who had an epiphany almost 10 years ago, during a trip to Palestine, where she realised that "everything that separates us from others is irrelevant, because underneath it all, we are just the same."
Having launched the project along with family friend Jonny Kennaugh, the group has spearheaded several initiatives designed to spread unity and happiness throughout the UAE. Best known among these is Water for Workers, where UAE residents take to the streets to distribute bottles of waters to labourers around town - just as a way of saying thanks - proving that a simple act like that can make a difference in someone's day. Other initiatives include Know Thy Neighbour (which aims to erase walls between neighbours) and We've Got Your Back, where fitness professionals connect with taxi drivers to help them combat the physical stresses of their jobs.
Their latest project is Restart the Art, an event that paired labourers with UAE-based artists to create works of art. The final work was open to public voting, and the winning pictures went on to decorate the labourers' buses. "I was worried that people would think it was a shallow project, because we weren't giving anyone money," confesses Lina. "But the reaction was phenomenal. There were people who told us that this was the first time someone was taking the effort to listen to their stories and treating them like equals. The project was a powerful, colourful showcase of the talents of people when they work together." How did it feel to receive such positive feedback? "I was in tears," Lina admits. "It reminded me of why we keep doing this work even though we are struggling financially. A moment like this is worth a million dollars."
The group is all geared up for their latest initiative, which involves an Empathy Pack, a box available to residents that includes a 'sampling' of their projects. "A lot of people ask us how they can help," explains Lina. "The Empathy Pack guides them so that they can take matters into their own hands."
Zareen Khan from Woman2Woman
For Zareen Khan, it was a gradual process to discovering her calling. Eight years ago, when the Pakistani national discovered there were hardly any platforms to help professional women in Dubai, she founded
Woman2Woman, an organisation that specifically aims to support women by providing them with networking opportunities. It wasn't long before her initiative had her organising events in the art scene, before graduating to fashion.
"I actually went to a fashion show one day, and I couldn't help but think that all the models looked identical," she explains. "It was like they had duplicated all the women who were walking the ramp. As a woman of colour who does not have a petite figure, I could not relate to any of them. And I believe that fashion should be for everyone."
This led to the concept behind Calendar Girls, an initiative by Women2Women, under their 'Beauty without Boundaries' programme. The show involved models who are 'real heroes', from the age of 10 to 50, and have inspiring stories to tell. That included Komal, a plus-size model in her 20s; Mahek, a dancer who is hearing-impaired; Bindiya, who suffers from cerebral palsy; and Anita Menon, a young woman with Down's Syndrome.
"Anita was the inspiration for my project," explains Zareen. "Her mother told me all she wanted to do was be a model, and when I actually met her, she was wonderful! So we got her involved and it was like a dream come true for her."
Needless to say, the event was a huge success, and Zareen is all pumped up about her next initiative, which will involve guys dressing up as their favourite superheroes. It's no mean feat to organise, especially since she is always busy with Woman2Woman but, for her, it is all worth it - because she knows she is making a difference.
"When you let people succeed by just being themselves, they gain a new confidence. Doing this. it helps me sleep better at night. A lot of people in my line of work are stressed out, but when someone contacts me and tells me that I helped their daughter or granddaughter, those messages are like energy pills. The gratitude I receive is everything."
Juhi Yasmeen Khan of JYK Fashion House
Indian national Juhi Yasmeen Khan is many things - an entrepreneur, fashion guru, public relations and marketing expert. and a philanthropist. She is the founder of JYK Fashion House and, although this is a full-time job in itself, she always makes time for social issues, such as founding Women Helping Women, a women empowerment help group. Her recent initiative is the Friday Market that aims to raise awareness for Dar Al Ber Society, one of the oldest organisations in the UAE, that supports underprivileged members of society by paying for basic requirements. The idea behind The Friday Market is simple - it gives UAE residents a chance to buy big brands, with a percentage of the proceeds going towards helping the underprivileged.
"The Friday Market is one of the small ways I feel like I am contributing to peoples' happiness," says Juhi. "Something as small as getting a free gift through the market or when parents see their kids having a good time in the play area can bring joy to someone's day."
Moreover, The Friday Market celebrated International Women's Day this year by inviting over 200 female labourers to the market and showing them a good time - complete with free food, gifts and live entertainment. There was also a lucky draw, where winners won exclusive gold and pearl pendants.
"It was a chance for women to interact with other distinguished ladies, health professionals and even RJs," explains Juhi. "After a hearty dinner, they were taken back to their rooms with gifts and a goody bag. You could see their happiness - many women said it was the first time they had ever been invited to such an event - and their pleasure was infectious."
Organising an event like this takes time and effort, but Juhi considers it her duty. "God has given me so much," she explains. "I had a good life growing up and my father tried his best to help people too. So I consider it my duty to give back, and it makes me happy."
Ali Al Sayed and Mina Liccione from Dubomedy
ina Liccione is a Broadway veteran and award-winning comedian who moved to Dubai in 2007. And when she married Emirati comedian Ali Al Sayed, it was little wonder that they became UAE's very own comedy couple - bringing laughter and joy to everyone who listened to them clowning around.
However, it wasn't just about spreading laughter through their comedy. Mina, who hails from America, had done a stint of 'clowning' work in hospitals there, and when she came to Dubai, she expressed her desire to start a similar programme. Ali, of course, was just as enthusiastic as she was, and that's how the Clowns Who Care project was born.
"In the US, there are hospitals just for children and loads of senior centres, but I couldn't find too many of them in the UAE," says Mina. "There are a lot of special needs students here, so that's who we decided to help. We reached out to organisations - we wanted to have workshops, events, even parties to bring some cheer into the childrens' lives. But there's a method to the madness. We have physical activities because these children need to exercise. That's when the body releases endorphins and also puts kids in a good mood."
"There's a lot of energy there," says Ali, who plays a big role in the events. "We have musicians, dancers, storytellers and entertainers of all kinds. All volunteers are welcome, with the only requisite being that they should be cheerful and upbeat. And the parties always end with a dance session of sorts."
Clowns Who Care have branched out over the years. Today, Ali and Mina make it a point to visit Jordan a couple of times every year to perform and spread cheer amongst the Syrian refugees. They also aim to brighten the day of all those in hospitals, as well as labourers. Ali recalls one particular incident where they were denied permission to perform in front of the labourers, because the company could not comprehend that they wanted absolutely nothing in return; they assumed it was a marketing gimmick of some sort. "I found myself having to explain myself to the general manager," chuckled Ali. "But, once he understood, he agreed instantly."
For Ali, being able to perform and brighten up someone's life - even if it is just for a day - is important. "When you make someone laugh - be it your colleague or sibling or parents - you just changed their day for the better! The fact that you have the power to do that is amazing."
The couple also launched Autism Smiles in the UAE last year, a programme designed to help autistic youngsters learn new skills, and just have fun. Mina admitted that, at first, it was difficult to make a connection with the children, especially because the children thrive on having a routine. It was a slow process of starting a routine, getting the children comfortable with it and ending the routine just as they expected - with no sudden changes.
"Any new activity can throw them off," explains Mina. "They need to know that they are in a safe and loving atmosphere. But now that they've gotten adjusted, it is incredible to see their confidence grow. Many of these kids are non-verbal and they cannot express emotions in the conventional sense. We have one boy who just runs around when he is excited. Others may think he is badly behaved, but we understand that he only does this because he is happy. This project helps me see the world through their eyes and, nowadays, before an event, I'm just as excited as they are."